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Europe

Milosevic In the Dock

The epic trial against former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic begins today at The Hague. He is charged with genocide and grave violations of human rights in the Balkan war of the 1990s.

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Picture of defiance

The trial of Slobodan Milosevic that begins today at The Hague will be a landmark in legal history. It's the first time that a head of state has been hauled before an international court to answer for such egregious crimes.

But nobody has any illusions of quick justice being meted out. Rather, the trial promises to be protracted, bitter and full of formidable challenges for the prosecutors who will call some 300 witnesses to the stand. The witnesses are both victims and insiders of the atrocities of the Balkan war.

Horrendous charges

The charges against the disgraced Serb leader are overwhelming: crimes against humanity in Croatia in 1991-92, genocide in the 1992-95 Bosnian war and crimes against humanity in Kosovo in 1999.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the communist Yugoslav federation, more than one million people were imprisoned or forced from their homes in the ensuing fighting, and at least tens of thousands were killed, maimed and wounded during the three conflicts.

Last year, the former Yugoslav leader was also accused of responsibility in Bosnia for the Sebrenica massacre of several thousand Muslim men and boys.

The international tribunal at The Hague established by the United Nations to deal specifically with crimes in the former Yugoslavia has indicted 80 people so far. Mr Milosevic is by far the most important.

Prosecutors face a challenging task

Chief Prosecutor, Carla del Ponte in her opening remarks on Tuesday said, "I recognise this trial will make history. The events themselves were notorious and a new term, "ethnic cleansing" came into common use in our language".

She added that some of the events revealed an almost medieval savagery and a calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare.

Prosecutors who expect the trial to last at least two years, plan to address the broad picture of all three conflicts, but in the coming months they plan to introduce evidence relating only to Kosovo. The Bosnia and Croatia cases against Milosevic are not expected to begin until July.

Mr Milosevic's prosecutors face a daunting task. They have to prove that the persecution of non-Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo was part of a single criminal conspiracy of Milosevic's to create an ethnically pure "Greater Serbia".

Milosevic remains defiant and self-righteous

Slobodan Milosevic remains a picture of stony defiance since his first appearance in the court in July last year. He refuses to recognise the validity of the court and has refused to appoint a defence team.

Though he is informally accepting the advice of some controversial figures in the field of international law, including Jacques Vergès, the French lawyer whose clients have included Nazis and Latin American terrorists.

In the past Milosevic has displayed rude and arrogant behaviour in the court and made statements bordering on the absurd. He branded the charges accusing him of genocide in Bosnia as "monstrous". "I should be given credit for peace in Bosnia, not war", he said.

He has complained of being monitored and isolated in his cell, of not allowed to give media interviews and of being discriminated against. He has also declined to enter a plea to charges of crime, prompting "not guilty" pleas entered on his behalf.

Clashes in court likely

Milosevic has also threatened to call as witnesses western leaders, including ex-President Bill Clinton and Britain's Tony Blair, who ordered the 78-days bombing of Yogoslavia in 1999, which finally forced the Serb army out of Kosovo.

Given his rebellious nature, prosecutors expect that Milosevic will challenge their claim that the sufferings of the non-Serb population in three wars was the result of a single premeditated plan.

The stage is set for some dramatic courtroom scenes.